Crews battle California fire's explosive growth
— Just days after a wildfire tore through a small Northern California town and destroyed scores of homes, crews on Wednesday battled another fast-moving blaze in the region that was also threatening residences.
Hundreds of additional firefighters were dispatched to the fire near the town of Pollock Pines, about 60 miles east of Sacramento, bringing the number fighting the blaze to more than 2,500 personnel. That was an increase of about 1,000 from the previous day.
e fire grew by thousands of acres overnight and had burned through nearly 29 square miles. It was threatening 500 homes, at least some of which were under mandatory evacuation orders, and was just 5 percent contained.
Meanwhile, further north, crews were building and strengthening containment lines around a fire that tore through the town of Weed near the Oregon border on Monday. The blaze damaged or destroyed more than 150 structures and also struck a blow at the economic vitals of the struggling timber town, knocking its last wood products mill offline for an undetermined amount of time.
With a maintenance shed reduced to twisted sheet-metal and the main manufacturing facility suffering structural damage, the Roseburg Forest Products veneer mill on the outskirts of Weed was out of commission while workers began assessing the damage, said Kellye Wise, vice president for human resources of the company based in Dillard, Oregon. The company hoped to have a better idea of when the mill could reopen by next week.
"We were in the middle of its path," he said of the fire. "It shows the great response of our employees, some of whom lost their own homes."
As the fire roared through trees, brush and homes on Schoolhouse Hill on Monday, the mill had enough warning to send home most of the 60 workers on the day shift and mobilize the mill fire crew, Wise said.
While they fought to save the mill, firebrands blew overhead and ignited blocks of houses downwind.
With 170 workers, the mill is the second largest employer in Weed, a blue-collar town of 3,000 people in the shadow of Mount Shasta, and it dates to 1897, when founder Abner Weed decided to take advantage of its strong winds as a natural drying process for the lumber turned out by his sawmills.
The mill shutdown, however temporary, is one more hit to Weed, which has never recovered from the logging cutbacks of the 1990s. Meant to protect the threatened northern spotted owl and salmon, the drawdown put tens of thousands of people in Siskiyou County out of work, county Supervisor Michael Kobseff said.
The mill jobs are particularly valuable because they pay wages high enough to support a family, much higher than the tourism jobs many must take, he said. Some who lost their homes are determined to rebuild, but others have no insurance, making state and federal assistance important, he said.
"It's just going to be this close-knit community trying to get back on track," he said. "It's not going to be overnight."
Winds gusting up to 40 mph pushed the flames into town, where they quickly chewed through a hillside neighborhood. The cause was under investigation.
"It went through here so fast it was unbelievable," Jim Taylor, a retired butcher who has lived in Weed for 30 years, said Tuesday. His house was one of three standing along his street after firefighters arrived in time to foam the side next to his neighbor's burning house. "I'm not a real religious person, but somebody was looking out for me."
The remnants of the Holy Family Catholic Church were still smoldering, its metal girders twisted on the ground.
"I mean it was devastating," said Maureen Campbell, the church's music minister who was baptized, confirmed and married at the church, along with her children. She lost her home to the fire.
"The house up there is no big deal. It can be rebuilt," she said. "But this is my family church, you know? It's much more endearing to me."
Fire crews took advantage of calmer winds and firefighting aircraft Tuesday, gaining control in and around Weed. But flames still threatened other parts of California.
In Oakhurst, a foothill community south of Yosemite National Park, a 320-acre fire that damaged or destroyed 71 structures — 37 of them homes — was 60 percent contained. About 600 residents from 200 homes remained evacuated, Madera County sheriff's spokeswoman Erica Stuart said.
More than 4,000 wildfires have burned in California this year.
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